Corpse Party: Book of Shadows (PlayStation Portable)
Developer: Team GrisGris, 5pb.
Released: January 15, 2013
The main reason this is not a friendly jumping off point for newcomers is that, unlike most games, the story is the main draw here. Like its predecessor, Book of Shadows starts off on a cheerful note by introducing the player to a likable cast of characters in a safe and friendly environment. Once the game has its hooks dug under the player's skin, however, all of that comfort is ripped away as the story plunges headlong into some of the darkest material explored in videogames.
Book of Shadows opens with the mother of one of the survivors attempting to help her emotionally distressed daughter. Naomi may have escaped Heavenly Host Elementary with her life, but she isn't well at all. Nobody seems to remember those that perished in the alternate dimension, least of all Naomi's best friend, Seiko, and that's tearing the poor girl apart.
The initial chapters take place in an alternate timeline, but turn back the clock so that the player can experience the events before the horror begins. Following a cultural festival at school, several students decide to partake in a charm to sendoff a friend that is transferring to a new school. Nobody is aware of the events that are about to unfold, save one boy, but for all his knowledge he's unable to stop history from repeating itself. I'd hate to spoil much more than that, but rest assured, this is an emotionally-gripping, at times humorous, and deeply unsettling tale.
The sound design is excellent and plays perfectly to just about every situation. The soundtrack is at times catchy and cloyingly cheerful at others. As you might expect though, more often than not the music is atmospheric and eerie. Accompanying the tunes is expert Japanese voice work, which was recorded binaurally. Headphones are strongly recommended, as the simulated three-dimensional sound makes for a truly chilling auditory experience.
Though Book of Shadows shines in a number of areas, being a "game" certainly isn't one of them. This is a visual novel first and foremost, so there isn't a great deal of gameplay to speak of, but it does feign an attempt to be something more. Unfortunately, that effort isn't a very good one and as a result the interactive aspect of the experience falls flat on its face.
Binary choices are about as good as it gets in Book of Shadows. Oftentimes there are right answers, but given that the player is allowed to save at any moment, players might find themselves intentionally going down an incorrect path to see one of the title's many "wrong ends." Though these amount to Game Over screens, the gruesome descriptions that accompany them make doing the wrong thing all the more enjoyable. Well, maybe that's not the best word choice. On one occasion a particularly unsettling sound effect left my stomach churning. While that wasn't particularly enjoyable, it does show how truly effective Corpse Party can be.
It's a pity though that a large portion of Book of Shadows is wasted aimlessly wandering through Heavenly Host's halls. Prepare to spend plenty of time moving from room to room, scouring for objects to help move the story forward. Sometimes, however, it's not an object at all that needs looking for. Rather, the player will need to wander past a particular area (sometimes several times) to trigger an event. It's monotonous, frustrating, and not fun in the slightest. Worst of all, it's rare that the game gives the player any direction.
The sprite art from the first Corpse Party has been replaced with a first-person perspective. And while I found this less pleasing from an aesthetic standpoint, it makes for a less frustrating gaming experience. Book of Shadows employs a point-and-click mechanic and objects that can be interacted with are highlighted with a blue hue. It's still tedious, but at least the days of mashing the X button over every pixel in a Where's Waldo-esque fashion are over.
Fans of Corpse Party would do well to pick up the second installment. The first game left a lot of unanswered questions and Book of Shadows does an admirable job at filling in the gaps. I've enjoyed spending time with these characters, even if it is the worst day of their lives. As for the uninitiated, well, play the first before tackling this one.
It's not like PlayStation Portable or Vita owners have been spoiled for choice when it comes to quality software as of late. Visual novels may be niche, but just about anyone can enjoy a good horror story. If you can get past the insipid gameplay, Corpse Party: Book of Shadows provides a pleasurable and haunting narrative that's well worth experiencing.